Honest, authentic conversations toward a safer and inclusive campus community

Today marks the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, a day to affirm cultural contributions and address global diversity issues. To highlight this day, we are introducing you to Dr Aminata Cairo who chairs the Diversity and Inclusion Team at the International Institute of Social Studies. 

What makes a space feel safe and inclusive? Is it the feeling of your opinions, values or beliefs being respected? Or to feel culturally represented among peers? Truth is, it’s many things. But when discussing the topics of diversity and inclusion, we are addressing issues of difference, or exclusion and discrimination that can happen anywhere. Be it in a classroom among your peers or with your colleagues in the workplace, we desire to feel included and valued wherever we are. University campuses have become prime places for this discussion.

More than ever before, there is more attention being paid to embedding diversity and inclusion policies within universities and higher education. In recent years, ISS established its Diversity and Inclusion team to address campus-wide issues. Aminata Cairo joined the team as the Interim chair in the winter of 2020. She currently heads initiatives on student research, assessing campus policy and raising the visibility of diversity issues.

Part of her work is hosting in-depth workshops attended by ISS staff and PhD researchers to inspire honest, raw and authentic discussions on what inclusivity means to us as a community. Granted, while the ISS campus is rich in a diverse student body and faculty, Cairo tells us it’s not so simple: ‘’a diverse campus is not enough; we all have to do the work as a community’’.

Building blocks towards inclusivity

Cairo's work in diversity and inclusion stems from an extensive background in higher education as a lector and inclusive scholar. In her years of experience, she has assisted faculties to have honest conversations about harmful campus culture that can lead to the exclusion of students, staff and faculty. Cairo argues that understanding what it means to be an inclusive space stems from shared knowledge we can agree upon. ‘‘The academic system we have comes from a very Eurocentric, male-dominated tradition. We are at a point now where we are seeing it’s insufficient. It’s incomplete but it’s functioned well for many years. But we want more, and we want better’’, she says.

‘We need diversity and inclusion because that [Eurocentric, male-dominated] model became our normal. You want to disrupt the normal, and that means shaking things up from the foundation.’

Coming to a mutual understanding can allow us to address community-wide issues. As Cairo shares, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any resistance on the way to finding common ground. ‘People may say, ”I’ve been in this system for almost 30 years, from elementary school to the doctorate level. It took me so long to figure out what it takes to succeed in this system. Why do I need to change in this system?” It’s uncomfortable.’

Diversity at ISS

ISS boasts one of the most culturally diverse campuses of Erasmus University Rotterdam. For more than 60 years, the Institute has attracted scholars from around the world, mostly from the Global South. Members of the ISS community, such as alumni, say this a unique aspect of the Institute that makes the campus experience enriching. Both faculty and students get to learn and collaborate with others from different cultural and pedagogical backgrounds who carry varying experiences. Because of this, the Institute can make a positive claim about the positive influences of diversity on the ISS community, but Cairo challenges the rose-coloured notion, ‘Yes, ISS is diverse, but what does that really mean?’.

‘The presence alone of a culturally diverse faculty and staff doesn’t diminish the exclusion people face. That is often tough to speak about. Even if you have a diverse community, each brings the good and the complicated. The struggles and the unspoken things that we carry – like what it means to be a woman, a dark-skinned person, what it means to be disabled – we bring all of that wherever we are, and it influences how we relate to each other. We cannot just assume that people will be open to speaking out.’

‘A diverse campus is not enough; we all have to do the work as a community.’

Hosting inclusivity workshops

As part of her work to help the ISS community define inclusion as a community, Cairo organized workshops over a three-month period for faculty and staff. The workshops take an unconventional route, compared to traditional training on how-to steps to apply diversity and inclusion principles in the workplace. Instead, each member explores aspects of their own identity through recalling their own personal stories about their cultural upbringing and working through activities to learn about the power of judgement and our words. For instance, during one task, staff was asked to choose a controversial statement from a list and open themselves up to be judged. Staff who listened to the statement had to deliver two forms of feedback, extremely harsh criticism and then comments of support.

Through these activities, Cairo hopes to challenge staff and faculty to assess their critical behaviours and resistance to change: ‘I always liken it to an iceberg. There are the obvious issues, like lack of representation of women or LGBTQ+ people, you see on the surface. But it’s what’s underneath – your feelings, cultural differences – that you also need to address for the things on the surface to change.’

Cairo finds that because the workshop focuses on the importance of individual exploration, people struggle to approach tasks openly. ‘People are resistant, and you need to get in touch with that resistance to work through it. Some people don’t know how to do this. Even those who are willing to change, aren’t trained to do this work. They are trained to find answers and to be rewarded for that. I’m teaching people to slow down and to rethink the way we do community. And it is not only about the hard stuff, but also about the good stuff. What do we appreciate and value and how can we be more purposeful about that?’

Although the workshops navigate difficult discussions, faculty and staff have positively reacted to completing a number of these workshops. Staff member Marie-Louise shares that it opened her eyes to how she ‘looks at yourself and how others see me’. Oane, an ISS researcher, shares that the workshops allow him to get to know colleagues across the Institute and ‘increase mutual understanding’.

‘Inclusion is about honesty and taking accountability as a community.’

Owning our stories

To Cairo, achieving and maintaining an inclusive environment is complex. An important aspect is that each member of the ISS community owns their personal stories – the identities we cling to, our upbringing and our ability to take accountability for the environment we create. ‘Inclusivity requires owning our stories. You have to go through the hard stuff, to get to understanding. Inclusion is about honesty and taking accountability as a community. It becomes your responsibility to shift away from pointing the finger to blame individuals. It means acknowledging that community members feel differently. It also means addressing what will be done.’

Above all, it's important that each member of the ISS community feels that they can be influential in helping all members feel safe and heard, ‘Everyone should play a part in this community, from the most vocal to ones who don’t speak out. Everyone should have a voice.’


Dr Aminata Cairo, scholar, author and speaker, is a dynamic force who has experience working within higher education and local organizations seeking to address issues regarding diversity and inclusion. Follow this link to Cairo's bio.

More information

The ISS Diversity and Inclusion Team aim to embrace and support every member within the broader ISS community of students, staff, and researchers to develop the necessary knowledge and skills to value all members and their contributions in research, education and work practices. For more on our objectives and ISS' legacy in inclusivity, check out the team's page.

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